Walter Brueggeman’s The Prophetic Imagination: Alternative Community

25 Oct

In this post, I will summarize and discuss the first (and central) chapter of  Walter Brueggeman’s book The Prophetic Imagination, entitled “The Alternative Community of Moses.”  In this chapter he sketches the outline for his understanding of prophetic ministry (both of the historical prophets, and what that sort of ministry might look like today), and he looks to Moses as the prototype for prophetic ministry.

Keep in mind, especially those with any sort of charismatic/Pentecostal background, that by “prophetic,” he, nor I, mean receiving some direct word of revelation from God, but rather a kind of posture of faith and ministry, which will  be explained.  Please do your best to dissociate yourself from definitions of prophecy that you may have in mind while reading this post, because otherwise there may be a tendency to read those definitions onto what Brueggemann says (and what I say about what Brueggemann says), which will end up very confusing.

To begin his discussion on the ancient prophets, Brueggemann starts, of course, with our present situation.  This actually makes perfect sense when we realize that the prophets were always about addressing their own contexts, not just prophesying about some distant future, disconnected from the present.  Thus, a discussion of what prophetic ministry was, is necessarily intertwined with what prophetic ministry is today.  Brueggemann states that bluntly in his second paragraph that, “the contemporary American church is so largely enculturated to the American ethos of consumerism that it has little power to believe or act.” (1)  He goes on to diagnose that, “the internal cause of such enculturation is our loss of identity through the abandonment of the faith tradition.” (1)  He goes on:

The church will not have power to act or believe until it recovers its tradition of faith and permits that tradition to be the primal way of our enculturation.  This is not a cry for traditionalism, but rather a judgment that the church has no business more pressing than the reappropriation of its memory in its full power and authenticity.  And that is true among liberals who are too chic to remember and conservatives who have overlaid the faith memory with all kinds of hedges that smack of scientism and Enlightenment. It is the task of prophetic ministry to bring the claims of tradition and the situation of enculturation into an effective interface.” (2, bold added)

 Brueggemann then goes on to discuss the different misunderstandings of prophecy by both conservatives and liberals.  He says, “The dominant conservative misconception… is that the prophet is a fortune teller, a predictor of things to come (mostly ominous)… While the prophets are in a way future-tellers, they are concerned with the future as it impinges upon the present. Conversely, liberals who abdicated and turned all futuring over to conservatives have settled for a focus on the present.  Thus prophecy is alternatively reduced to righteous indignation and, in circles where I move, prophecy is mostly understood as social action.  Indeed, such a liberal understanding of prophecy is an attractive and face-saving device for any excessive abrasiveness in the service of almost any cause.  Perhaps our best effort would be to let the futuring of such conservatives and the present criticism of the liberals correct each other.” (2-3, bold, underline, and italics added)

He then states his hypothesis, which is the center of this chapter, and of the whole book.  “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” (3, italics original, underline added)

He goes on, “Thus I suggest that the prophetic ministry has to do not primarily with addressing specific public crises but with addressing, in season and out of season, the dominant crisis that is enduring and resilient, of having our alternative vocation co-opted and domesticated.” (3, italics added)  Brueggemann then defines the two key activities in nurturing this “alternative consciousness”.  “The alternative consciousness… serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness.  To that extend, it attempts to do what the liberal tendency has done: engage in the delegitimizing of the present ordering of things.  On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.  To that extent, it attempts to do what the conservative tendency has done, to live in fervent anticipation of the newness that God has promised and will surely give.” (3, italics original, underlines added) He later reiterates the relative strengths and weaknesses of both liberals and conservatives, saying, “Liberals are good at criticism but often have no word of promise to speak; conservatives tend to future well and invite to alternative visions, but a germane criticism by the prophet is often not forthcoming.” (4-5)

Brueggemann then returns to Moses, who he holds up as the prototype of a prophet, and specifically the story of Moses, Pharaoh, and the birth of the nation of Israel.  He writes,

“The radical break of Moses and Israel from imperial reality is a two-dimensioned break from both the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.  Moses dismantled the religion of static triumphalism by exposing the gods and showing that in fact they had no power and were not gods… The mythic claims of the empire are ended by the disclosure of the alternative religion of the freedom of God…. At the same time, Moses dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion.  The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just a new religion or a new religious idea or a vision of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history… The participants in the Exodus found themselves… involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom.” (6-7, italics original)

“We will not understand the meaning of prophetic imagination unless we see the connection between the religion of static triumphalism and the politics of oppression and exploitation.” (7, italics original)  Brueggemann explains how in many ways the religion of a society props up and legitimates the politics and social structure of that society.  Thus in imperial Egypt, their gods upheld their social order, under which the Hebrews suffered in slavery.  So Moses’ attack on the gods of Egypt (the plagues were aimed at undermining the power (and perception of power) of the Egyptian hierarchy and their gods) was in reality an attack on their entire social order.  Brueggemann writes, “the gods of Egypt are the immovable lords of order.  they call for, sanction, and legitimate a society of order, which is precisely what Egypt had…. Thus the religion of the static gods is not and never could be disinterested, but inevitably it served the interests of the people in charge, presiding over the order and benefiting from the order” (7)  “It is the marvel of prophetic faith that both imperial religion and imperial politics could be broken.” (7)  Brueggemann further explains the connection between theology and sociology: “Our sociology is predictably derived from, legitimated by, and reflective of our theology.  And if we gather around a static god of order who only guards the interests of the “haves, ” oppression cannot be far behind.  Conversely, if a God is disclosed who is free to come and go, free from and even against the regime, free to hear and even answer slave cries, free from all proper goodness as defined by the empire, then it will bear decisively upon sociology because the freedom of God will surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion.” (8)

Brueggemann talks in more depth about the two primary activities of prophetic ministry: criticism and energizing.  Criticism is often expressed in grieving, in the mourning of the current situation, and a call to the God who is free to act on a people’s behalf.  This criticism is the astute awareness of the brokenness of a particular situation, and the voicing of that brokenness rather than sweeping it under the rug.  He notes how our society has a tendency to silence criticism by pretending that everything is just fine, because recognizing a problem demands something of us, to work towards a better reality.  We see this in Exodus 2:23-25, which reads, “…the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew”  This is where energizing comes in.  He notes how closely energizing and hope are linked.  Energizing is that positing a vision of an alternative reality, of something different.  “It is the task of the prophet to bring to expression the new realities against the more visible ones of the old order….We are energized not by that which we already possess but by that which is promised and about to be given.” (14)  This new reality (as sociology is connected with theology) is understood as that which is not just brought about by the prophet, but which is a gift of God, it is something given.  This energizing comes not just from a realistic appraisal of what a person or people are capable of accomplishing on their own, but on a future that God alone can bring about.  In the Exodus narrative, the freedom from bondage and birth of a new nation is God’s own gift, something which energizes and provides hope for the Hebrew people.

And lastly, prophecy, when it has brought about the alternative reality, culminates in doxology, that is the praise and worship of God.  The story of the Exodus contains Moses’ song of praise, containing these words: (Ex. 15:9-13)

The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake,
I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them.
I will draw my sword; my hand shall destroy them.’
You blew with your wind; the sea covered them;
they sank like lead in the mighty waters.

“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?
You stretched out your right hand;
the earth swallowed them.

“You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode.

So now for a few thoughts on Brueggemann’s formulation of what constitutes prophetic ministry.

First of all, I really appreciate how he shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the liberal and conservative tendencies, of criticism and energizing, of sociology and theology.  He shows that these belong together.  Those with liberal leanings will inevitably focus on the here and now, and make theological concerns and eschatological concerns secondary.  Those with conservative tendencies focus very much on the truth about God, and eagerly await the day of God’s inbreaking into history, and can often miss what God is already doing in history at the present moment.  And because the conservative tendency can often miss the importance of making criticisms of the social order we find ourselves in, it can often unwittingly support whatever order exists, even if it often only serves to support those in power and those with the most to gain from the present situation.  This balanced tension between focus on the present mission and future hope is crucial, I believe, for a healthy Christian faith.

Second, I appreciate how this paradigm of prophetic ministry can be applied to so many different situations.  One can use this structure of criticism and energizing both within a faith community, and in the broader society, as well as on a personal level.  Brueggemann’s chapter remains quite vague as to specific applications for Christians today, but in many ways this is helpful, because it allows for its application to diverse situations.

Third of all, well, I kinda said this in point one, but I think we often how intertwined our theology is with our sociology.  We can view our theology, beliefs about God, as being in one category, and our views about sociology, politics, and interactions with others as being in another category.  But as Christians we look to Jesus as providing us with an alternative vision of how we are to interact with others.  Our values are transformed, our methods are transformed, and, we hope, our hearts are transformed.  This does not mean that we attempt to promote a triumphalistic, dominating politics of coercing everyone around us to adhere to “Christian values”.  It means that we precisely don’t do that because triumphalism and domination over others are not what we as Christians are called to.   Ok… I feel myself getting off topic.  Thoughts?

P.S. Thing I like #4: I like how Brueggemann corrects the idea of the prophet as the person who makes ominous predictions about the future, and shows that the prophets were always concerned about their present contexts, and were specifically concerned with the future precisely as it “impinges upon the present.”  Without this appreciation that the OT prophets spoke to their own contexts, people can create some pretty wild interpretations of the prophetic books of the bible.


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